Sunday 18 February 2018

The 6 chinks in Chelsea's armour

as if the pressure bearing down on Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini's shoulders was not great enough already with having to satisfy the demands of Sheik Mansour, who has invested £650m in the club, there is the added stress today that the rest of the Premier League are looking to him, in the hope his team can expose a chink or two in Chelsea's otherwise impenetrable armour.

There have been signs in recent weeks that Chelsea are not unbeatable, despite their haul of one-sided victories. It may be clutching at straws, but there are glimmers of hope for the chasing pack.

1. Defensive wobbles

On the face of it, Chelsea's defence is the best in the country, if we discount the four goals a makeshift team conceded to Newcastle in the Carling Cup in Wednesday night.

John Terry and company have let in just one goal in the Premier League, a brilliant dipping volley by West Ham United's Scott Parker, and one in the Champions League, a close range tap-in for Tomas Oravec of MSK Zilina.

The goals have a common denominator, however, namely they came after goalkeeper Petr Cech misjudged a cross and the defence could not recover quickly enough.

The goals hint back to the frailties Chelsea demonstrated during the early months of last season, when they conceded an unusually high proportion of goals from set-pieces.

2. Squad size

The desire to trim the wage bill last summer saw Chelsea only too happy to allow players like Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Juliano Belletti to leave.

All were high earners, and they have been replaced in the first-team squad by two players on lower wages, in Yossi Benayoun and Ramires, and a handful of cheaper kids.

The result is that Ancelotti has been left with a relatively small squad of 19 senior professionals, three of whom are goalkeepers, plus youngsters like Daniel Sturridge, Gael Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt and Jeffrey Bruma, who have a sum total of two Premier League starts for Chelsea between them, both made by Sturridge.

They already have injuries to Frank Lampard, Benayoun and Salomon Kalou, leaving them short of cover for today's trip to Eastlands.

3. Is age catching up with them?

The demands of playing Premier League football week after week, year after year, may finally be taking its toll on the likes of Lampard and John Terry, both of whom have missed games already this season.

Lampard underwent keyhole surgery to repair a hernia shortly after Chelsea's 2-0 victory over Stoke City on August 28 and has not been able to play since. Terry has been sidelined with hamstring and rib injuries, although he returned to play 45 minutes midweek against Newcastle.

Terry and Lampard have been key to Chelsea's three title triumphs in five years. They cannot afford for the pair to miss too many games.

4. Champions League is the priority

Ancelotti has hinted in recent interviews that the natural progression after winning a domestic title is to win the Champions League.

In Italy, success in the Champions League is rated far higher than winning Serie A. Also the Champions League remains the one trophy to elude Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

All of which points to Chelsea making Europe their priority this season, which could mean sacrificing league points to keep players fresh for key matches in March and April.

5. Risk of being undercooked

Chelsea have not faced a serious test since August 8, when they lost 3-1 to Manchester United in the Community Shield.

Since then, their games have been so routinely easy there is a danger they may not quite be up to speed against a City attack led by Carlos Tevez, who scored in both the club's victories over Chelsea last season.

Ancelotti says his side were not fit in August but are now in peak condition.

6. Mikel is no Makelele

Chelsea at their best in 2005 and 2006 were a formidable team, and at their heart was Claude Makelele, so good they named a midfield position after him.

Makelele's mantle falls now to John Obi Mikel, a giant of a man who has proved it is possible for young players to break into the Chelsea team with 137 starts under his belt at the age of 23.

However, he still has some way to go to match the defensive excellence of Makelele, who was invariably at the right place at the right time. Mikel had a nightmare the last time he faced City.

Irish Independent

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